Words of Life – “Sanctification” (Part 1)

Last week, our discussion centered around the concept of holiness. In that study, we saw how God’s holiness is a quality of being set apart and totally incomparable to any other god or spirit in the heavenly realms. We then found that man’s holiness comes in two phases. We are initially declared holy by God independent of our merit or achievements and are subsequently called to pursue holiness in our conduct. That is, we embrace our identity as “Holy Ones” or “Saints” and devote ourselves to a holy way of living. Both the declaration of holiness and the process of becoming holy are described in scripture using the same word: Sanctification. At its core, sanctification is simply the process by which something (or someone) becomes holy. This week we’ll take a closer look at this process and how it relates to Justification and Salvation.

A Declaration of Holiness

As mentioned last week, Christian sanctification begins with God’s declaration of holiness. When and how this declaration is made, however, is not entirely straightforward. Some verses describe our holiness as something God declared before the world began. Consider the following passages:

“For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love.”

—Ephesians 1:4 (NET)

“But we ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.”

—2 Thessalonians 2:13 (NET)

“From Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those temporarily residing abroad (in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, the province of Asia, and Bithynia) who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father by being set apart by the Spirit for obedience and for sprinkling with Jesus Christ’s blood.”

—1 Peter 1:2 (NET)

While other passages seem to suggest our sanctification was accomplished on the cross of Calvary:

“And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before him”

—Colossians 1:21-22 (NET)

“By his will we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” —Hebrews 10:10 (NET)

—Colossians 1:21-22 (NET)

“So also Jesus suffered and died outside the city gates to make his people holy by means of his own blood.”

—Hebrews 13:12 (NET)

Still other passages present believers as declared holy at the time of their conversion or baptism:

“And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

—1 Corinthians 6:11

“Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, so that he may present the church to himself as glorious—not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless.”

—Ephesians 5:25-27 (NET)

“to open their eyes so that they turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

—Acts 26:18 (NET)

I affirm that all nine of these verses are the word of God and are therefore true. However, a plain reading of these texts suggests contradiction. Over the coming weeks, I want to take some time to reconcile these verses and better understand what the biblical authors meant when they said believers were “sanctified” or “made holy”. While I believe it is possible to harmonize these passages (and others like them), I acknowledge that this requires careful study and some theological assumptions. I will do my best to maintain an exegetical interpretation of the text and avoid reading modern dogmas and theological systems into the text, but please understand that all biblical exposition requires some degree of assumption and will necessarily be biased by the reader’s internal preconceptions.

On that note, there is a school of thought common within western Christianity today centered around the notion that prior to the creation of the world, God predetermined the salvation of each individual. This perspective asserts that God orchestrates all events through His sovereignty and providence, leading specific individuals to experience an “irresistible grace,” compelling them to accept salvation. According to this doctrine, the chosen ones are unconditionally elected by God for salvation and even their faith is predetermined by God. Conversely, those not chosen for salvation are instead predestined for condemnation. Having been born in a state of “total depravity” and lacking the capacity to respond to God’s grace in faith, they are consequently doomed. Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross is deemed to offer only a “limited atonement” inaccessible to and never intended for the unchosen. Despite this predetermined fate and inability to respond in faith, these unbelievers are nevertheless held accountable by God for rejecting God’s call to repentance. The concept of election or non-election is portrayed as unconditional; determined not by the individual’s faith in Christ, but solely by God’s good pleasure prior to the inception of the world. This theological framework is commonly referred to as “Calvinism” (named after the reformer John Calvin, although he was not the first to propose this kind of doctrine).

I bring that up because it is important for you to know from the outset that I am not a Calvinist. Therefore, my study will inherently be inclined towards the belief in God’s provision for the salvation of all humanity and the importance of man’s free will in accepting or rejecting that provision. While certain verses may appear to support Calvinistic interpretations when taken in isolation, I personally find that Calvinism doesn’t align with the broader context of scripture or with the righteous character of God as depicted in the Bible. Although this study isn’t intended as a critique of Calvinism, it’s unavoidable that my perspective will diverge from this doctrine in a discussion closely linked to predestination and election. Therefore, for transparency’s sake, I want to make my stance clear from the outset, and also emphasize that my views may not necessarily reflect those of other contributors to this ministry. Having said that, let’s delve into the analysis of the first three passages mentioned above.

Ephesians 1:4 – Sanctification before the foundation of the world?

“For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love.”

—Ephesians 1:4 (NET)

Let’s examine Ephesians 1:4. Several crucial aspects stand out in this passage. Firstly, it’s essential to note that the subject of this passage (and the other two mentioned) is plural. In other words, the “elect” referred to in each of these passages represents a collective group of believers. While a group comprises multiple individuals and can be addressed as such, it can also be addressed as a unified body. This is what I believe Paul is doing here. When he says “we” were chosen “before the foundations of the world”; he is talking about the church at large, not individual believers. How do we know this? Well, Paul clarifies here that we are chosen, not in and of ourselves, but rather; we are chosen “in Christ”. What does this mean? It means that God’s foreknowledge and divine election revolves around the Messiah; not around us.

God’s eternal plan for the redemption of mankind through Christ would take the form of a kingdom and a covenant. Before the foundations of the world, God the Father ordained Christ to be the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Moreover, He predestined the Messiah’s kingdom to be a holy and unblemished people, but that does not mean that He preordained certain people to be citizens of that kingdom and certain people to be left out. Instead, scripture tells us that citizenship in this kingdom is based on a covenant of faith. This covenant is open to all. Anyone willing to enter into it by faith in Christ is accepted into that kingdom. That’s why just a few verses later in Ephesians 1:13-14, Paul says that the promises found “in Christ” became our “inheritance” when we “heard the word of truth” and “believed in Christ.”

Furthermore, in light of Israel’s historic status as God’s “chosen people” starting with Abraham; Paul’s writings to the Gentiles about being “chosen” before the foundation of the world take on an implication of inclusivity rather than exclusivity. In Abraham, only Israel was “God’s elect”; but now, in Christ, this status is available to Jew and Gentile alike. This is an important parallel! You see, Israel was “chosen” corporately “in Abraham” on the basis of the flesh (that is, natural human ancestry) and not all those who were chosen were faithful. Similarly, believers are chosen corporately “in Christ” and this choosing is based not on the flesh but on faith in (and faithfulness to) Christ resulting in a far superior election.

Lastly, another important point to keep in mind when reading verses about election and predestination is that the “who” of these passages is secondary to the “what”. That is, the passages are less concerned with who is being chosen and more concerned with what they are being elected to do or be or receive. In this case; Paul is saying that before the foundations of the world, it was God’s will that His people be holy (set apart, dedicated to Him) and unblemished (sinless) in his sight. Thus, in the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul thanks God for the abundant spiritual blessings found in Christ. These blessings were prepared in advance and bestowed upon those who hear and believe the gospel of salvation. These believers make up the kingdom of God; a people declared to be “holy in His sight” before the foundation of the world and destined for atonement (the purification from sin). However, membership in this kingdom was not determined by arbitrary divine selection or by ethnicity, but by the willing covenant faithfulness of the believer.

2 Thessalonians 2:13 – Chosen from the beginning for salvation?

“But we ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.”

—2 Thessalonians 2:13 (NET)

While this interpretation provides valuable insights into understanding such language within the broader scriptural context, the passage from Thessalonians presents unique challenges that warrant separate examination. At first glance, 2 Thessalonians 2:11-14 appears to suggest that God manipulates certain individuals, rendering them incapable of accepting the truth of the gospel of Christ. This, along with Paul’s assertion about believers being chosen from the beginning, might seem to bolster a Calvinistic understanding. However, upon closer scrutiny of these verses, an alternative interpretation emerges—one that, in my perspective, better aligns with the broader themes of scripture.

To help us fully grasp what Paul is saying here, I think it will be helpful to consider what he wrote to the church in Rome. Pay attention to phrases like “therefore”, “for this reason” and “consequently.”

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones, 27 and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. 29 They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them.

—Romans 1:20-32

In this passage, the individuals described are depicted as spiraling into darkness and depravity. Repeatedly, the text states that God “gave them over” to this fate, allowing them to sink into wickedness and ultimately relegating them to condemnation. But why did this happen? Was their descent into madness predetermined by God or was it the result of their own choices and actions? Verse 18 asserts that they “suppressed the truth by their unrighteousness.” In verse 24, Paul describes their willful rejection of truth leading God to give them over to the desires of their hearts and impurity. This pattern continues in verses 25 and 26, where Paul speaks of their exchange of God’s truth for falsehood, resulting in God giving them over to dishonorable passions. Paul drives this point home once more in verse 28, underscoring that their refusal to acknowledge God led Him to give them over to a depraved mind. It’s crucial to understand that God did not predestine these individuals for condemnation; rather, their descent into madness and depravity is the natural consequence of rejecting God’s truth. God simply resigned them to the fate they had chosen.

I interpret 2 Thessalonians 2 in much the same way. The text emphasizes that these individuals “found no place in their hearts for the truth so as to be saved” and “Consequently God sends on them a deluding influence”. Like the lost souls described in Romans, these people are not deluded because God predestined them for condemnation; rather, their rejection of truth leads God to give them over to their own delusions. Paul is clear that there is a cause and effect relationship between their rejection of the truth and God’s sending of this deluding influence. This interpretation is further bolstered by the latter part of verse 13. Paul seems to suggest that sanctification is the instrument which brings about salvation while identifying “the Spirit and faith in the truth” as the qualifying factors by which they were chosen by God. Far from being “unconditional,” election to salvation through sanctification seems to be on the basis of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the individual’s faith in the the truth of the gospel. This strongly suggests a parallel cause-and-effect relationship: if the condemned are rejected due to their suppression of truth, we would expect the saved to be chosen based on their faith in truth. Indeed it seem this is exactly what Paul is saying.

Indeed, the Greek grammar in this passage presents some ambiguity, allowing for a Calvinistic interpretation as well. Paul could be suggesting that believers were chosen for both salvation and faith, with salvation coming through sanctification by the Spirit and faith being a distinct blessing they are predestined to receive from God alongside salvation. However, it’s not certain that this passage necessarily refers to predestination at all. Many translations interpret the phrase “chose you from the beginning for salvation” as “chose you to be the firstfruits of salvation.” If this is indeed Paul’s intended meaning, then he is not asserting that their election occurred “before the foundations of the world.” On the contrary, he is indicating that they are among the first people to hear and believe the gospel, and as a result of this belief, God has chosen them for salvation through sanctification. It therefore becomes unclear whether the sanctification mentioned here refers to God’s declaration of holiness or if it denotes the process by which believers actually become holy. However, the two concepts are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Paul may be referring to the entire process, encompassing both the declaration and the actualization of holiness in the lives of believers. Regardless, it seems important to our study that Paul clearly states here that salvation comes through sanctification!

1 Peter 1:1-2 – Chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father?

“From Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those temporarily residing abroad (in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, the province of Asia, and Bithynia) who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father by being set apart by the Spirit for obedience and for sprinkling with Jesus Christ’s blood.”

—1 Peter 1:2 (NET)

Our third and final passage for this week is 1 Peter 1:1-2. These verses can be understood much like Ephesians 1:4, particularly when we consider the original Greek reading of the text. The phrase “who are chosen” doesn’t actually appear in the Greek at all. Instead, the word translated as “those” in the first part of verse 1 should be read as “the elect” or “the chosen people.” Consequently, Peter isn’t saying they are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God. Rather, what was “foreknown” by God was that this elect people would be set apart, or sanctified, by the Spirit for obedience and for sprinkling with Jesus Christ’s blood. The English Standard Version renders the passage this way:

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood”

—1 Peter 1:2 (ESV)

Throughout generations, God revealed His intent to reconcile both the dispersed children of Israel and the Gentile world to Himself. They would be rejoined, or in the case of the Gentiles, grafted into the vine of which Christ is the root, becoming partakers in His new covenant and citizens of the new kingdom that would never end. Peter later describes this people as a “royal priesthood” and a “holy nation.” It is this priesthood, this nation, this kingdom that God predestined to be set apart, or sanctified, by the Spirit and washed in the blood of Christ. (Recall from a few weeks ago that “sprinkling with blood” is temple language and implies purification from sin or atonement). Thus, Peter is simply addressing his letter to members of this new kingdom of priests (the elect) and identifying them as a people set apart by the Spirit for faithful obedience and forgiveness of sins.

While I am certain that God’s omniscient foreknowledge extends to include which individuals would ultimately be included in this kingdom, we should not assume such foreknowledge to be a deterministic and unconditional preordainment of these individuals. Such an assumption eisegetically reads Calvinist theology into the text rather than exegetically drawing meaning out of the text and interpreting it through the lens of the broader scriptural narrative. In fact, it could be argued that if this passage makes any statement at all about the conditions (or lack there of) for election; “it is that “sanctification by the Spirit” leading to “obedience” and “atonement” are the determining factors by which the elect are chosen rather than blessings provided to the elect as a product of their election.


As we conclude this week’s study, one thing becomes evident from the passages we’ve explored: God’s intention from the dawn of creation was to establish a holy and unblemished people for Himself. Election and sanctification are intertwined concepts, and theological debates concerning the predestination of God’s elect will persist for generations to come. Nonetheless, scripture assures us that before the foundations of the world, God had already purposed to raise up a holy nation under the lordship of His Son, Jesus the Messiah. This people was destined to be consecrated to Him, claimed as His own possession, and elected to serve as a kingdom of priests. Their election to this role necessitates their separation, obedience, and purification from sin through faith in the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In this manner, believers of all ages were sanctified—declared holy—before the foundation of the world. This does not necessarily imply that God predestined specific individuals to election and others to condemnation before time began. Instead, it indicates that He ordained the establishment of this holy kingdom, which He inaugurated through the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of the Messiah. The King now extends open arms, offering citizenship, sanctification, and complete atonement through the covenant of faith instituted by His own blood. “Whosoever will may come.”

Next week, we will delve deeper into the topic of sanctification and expand upon the concepts we discussed here. We will revisit the other verses mentioned at the outset of this study and explore the process by which a believer’s sanctification is realized through repentance and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Until then, may God bless you abundantly!

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